The trial began last week of A Raja and his associates. May the law follow a speedier course than it usually does in India and may those found guilty be severely punished. Swift justice is needed because it is the first time that a senior minister and high officials have been put on trial for allegedly making business careers out of serving the public. If they are found guilty,they must be seen to pay for their treachery. This will do more to curb corruption in public life than Anna Hazares Jan Lokpal Bill.
There has been much discussion about whether our former Minister of Telecommunications sold 2G spectrum so cheap that it caused a loss of Rs 176,000 crore or whether it was less than Rs 3,000 crore. In my view,this is not what matters. Auditing is not the business of political analysts though it would have helped if our hyperactive Comptroller & Auditor Generals office had shown unanimity on the quantum of losses to the exchequer.
What worries me is that despite the publicity this trial has attracted,despite the reams and reams of political comment,we continue to skirt around the central lesson we can learn from it. And,this is that we need urgently to evolve rules of transparency in government that will make it impossible for politicians and bureaucrats to do in future what Raja did. He is far from being the only politician in our country to use his ministerial powers to make a successful business career. The list of politicians and officials who have become inexplicably rich from short stints in government is a long one. Suffice it to say that nearly every political family in India seems these days to produce one child with remarkable business skills and most of our bureaucrats have enough money to educate their children abroad.
If Raja helped his friends in business circles make money out of buying and selling airwaves,there are others who make money out of selling mining rights and changing land use. Honest politicians use the money they make to fund their political activities while dishonest ones help their children set up businesses that mysteriously make huge profits.
Corrupt practices are so cleverly disguised as legitimate commercial activity that even the most diligent Jan Lokpal would have a hard time detecting a crime. Anna and his team of NGO types have not worked this out so they continue to demand more powers for a new super-bureaucracy of powerful officials. They seem not to have noticed that it is only when there are fewer powerful officials with significantly reduced powers that things will change.
The immense powers that our political leaders and bureaucrats continue to enjoy is a legacy from socialist times. We copied the former Soviet Union. If you want proof,pay attention to the current face-off in a London court between Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky. It offers fascinating details of how these two oligarchs made vast fortunes out of looting the assets of the Soviet Union as it slowly collapsed. They did this by sharing the loot with political leaders. We are lucky that we do not have our own oligarchs. What we do have is too many government functionaries with the discretionary powers of minor potentates. Their powers are so limitless that they can make or break major industrialists by manipulating the government contracts they hand out.
The only new trick they have learned since the economy was liberalised is that they can use their powers to become as rich as rich industrialists and without needing to invest a lifetime of hard work. At the level of our state governments,misuse of political power is even easier. Notice the remarkable business prowess that Jagan Reddy developed when his father was chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. The advance tax he paid jumped from Rs 2.92 lakh in 2009 to Rs 84 crore last year. This probably makes him the most successful businessman in the history of commerce.
So it is good that the former chief minister of Karnataka recently spent a month in jail for treating public land as private property. But we need to remember that he was only doing what everyone else does. Mining licences,contracts to build public facilities such as roads,airports and ports all involve an intricate system of bribery whereby some member of some major political leaders family ends up becoming very,very rich.
Can the rot be stemmed? Yes,it can be. Not by creating a draconian new law,but by reducing the discretionary powers of ministers and high officials. If there were transparent rules for the selling of 2G spectrum,there would have been no chance for A Raja to help his friends. Right? This is the most important lesson we can learn from his trial.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh